If you’re a Star Trek fan, then you know about the replicator, the device that can produce objects on command. 3D printers were initially heralded as the implementation of the replicator, but as Dan Shapiro discovered, they’re far from that.
Shapiro stumbled across 3D printers while looking for a way to fabricate game pieces for his crowd-funded children’s programming game, Robot Turtles. The game became a hit after it was released in 2013, and Shapiro wanted to create a deluxe version with actual board pieces, as opposed to cardboard pieces. But the 3D printer didn’t meet his needs.
While exploring other options, Shapiro came across laser cutters. “I can’t thank my wife enough for her patience with me and her support, as I laid down over $11,000 on one such device, which not only weighed 700 lbs., but also featured horrible software that took me weeks to fully master,” he says. Inspired to make things better, Shapiro recruited two friends, Mark Gosselin, an engineer, and Tony Wright, a marketing specialist, and they began looking for ways to create a similar, affordable, user-friendly device.
“We learned that the typical 3D printer user describes himself as an engineer and uses the printers for experimentation and prototyping,” he says. They also learned that laser cutter users identify as designers and use their cutters to produce objects they would give away, sell, or use for parts in more complex pieces. “We eventually decided to describe our product as a 3D laser printer, which calls out to both audiences,” he says. The result, the Glowforge 3D laser printer, uses a hair’s-breadth laser to cut through materials like wood, leather, fabric, and paper. Projects to date have included papercut wedding invitations, leather bags, and a drone with dual rubberband Gatling guns. Glowforge became the largest 30-day crowdfunding campaign ever, selling $27,907,995 in preorders. (Orders will ship in late 2016.)
Shapiro, who moved here to join Microsoft after getting his degree in general engineering at Harvey Mudd College in California, lives on Mercer Island with his wife and 7-year-old twins. He has his work cut out for him with Glowforge, but he’s not frazzled. He founded his first company, Ontela, later known as Photobucket, before founding Sparkbuy. Google gobbled up Sparkbuy and made Shapiro head of Google Comparison Inc. until he took a break to write Hot Seat: The Startup CEO Guidebook.
The unexpected success of Glowforge, however, forced Shapiro to scale back some of his activity. “We are hearing from many of our customers that they are waiting for their Glowforge to arrive so they can quit their jobs,” Shapiro says, “and start turning their ideas into real-world products with our laser.”